Culture War Casualty

Sam Olens, a controversial pick for president of Kennesaw State last year, has resigned following inquiries into how he handled protests related to the national anthem.

December 15, 2017
Kennesaw State cheerleaders taking a knee.

Sam OlensSam Olens (below left), the president of Kennesaw State University, named to the position over student and faculty protests just last year, has announced his resignation from the Georgia institution, effective in February.

The resignation marks a short term for the university leader who has been plagued by a cheerleader protest scandal this year and whose appointment as president in November 2016 came amid faculty leaders criticizing his lack of higher education experience and his defense of the state’s same-sex marriage ban as attorney general.

“I have decided that new leadership will be required for KSU to fully realize its potential,” he said in an email to students and employees Thursday. “Accordingly, I have advised the chancellor and the Board of Regents of my intention to step down as the president of Kennesaw State University.”

The resignation comes after a scandal dragged out during the fall semester over the way the university -- and Olens, specifically -- handled cheerleaders who protested during the national anthem before a football game. Olens didn’t mention the cheerleaders in his resignation, and instead congratulated the university for the challenges it has overcome in the past year.

In September, a handful of cheerleaders -- later dubbed the Kennesaw 5 -- took a knee during the playing of the national anthem before a football game. The university would later change its pregame ceremony, keeping the cheerleaders off the field during the anthem. The university said that the change -- though it came after the protest -- was logistical in nature and had nothing to do with the protest.

But holes would start to emerge in that story.

Kneeling during the national anthem has become a form of political protest over the last year, since Colin Kaepernick, a former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, started kneeling during the anthem before National Football League games in an protest against racism and police brutality. The protest has drawn supporters and opponents, largely split along Democratic-Republican party lines, respectively. Opponents of the protest have said it disrespects the military.

In the days following the game, both the local sheriff -- who is a Republican -- and a Republican state representative who chairs a subcommittee in charge of appropriations for Georgia’s public universities complained publicly in the press. Both said Olens -- a Republican attorney general before assuming the presidency -- had been helpful, and they expressed confidence that the situation would not happen again.

At the time, a university spokeswoman said that politics had nothing to do with the decision, and the timing and political intricacies of the narrative were all a coincidence. Olens had simply passed along information that was already decided upon by the athletics department to Sheriff Neil Warren and State Representative Earl Ehrhart, the university said.

The political intricacies of the situation raised eyebrows, and subsequent public records dumps placed things on even shakier ground.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution unearthed text messages from Warren and Ehrhart bragging about influencing the university’s decision to change the pregame ceremony. Following the publishing of the texts, the University System of Georgia issued a statement saying it would conduct a “special review” of the allegations that the decision to remove the cheerleaders from the field during the national anthem was a political one.

“Not letting the cheerleaders come out on the field until after national anthem was one of the recommendations that Earl and I gave him!” Warren said in one text message.

More texts, between Olens and his staff, would be unearthed in a public records request by one of the cheerleaders’ brothers.

“Not good. Can you help set up a [meeting] with them and me this week,” Olens texted K. C. White, the vice president for student affairs, the weekend the cheerleaders knelt. Olens expressed concern about the fallout of the situation with the media and in town.

A meeting between Olens and the cheerleaders never happened.

The records also disclosed the edits that went into the talking points created for university staff to respond to questions from the cheerleaders. At one point, though it didn’t make the final draft, the talking points warned cheerleaders that if donors stopped giving money to the school because of protesting, “that affects the university’s ability to provide need-based scholarships and support to your fellow students.”

In November, the university reversed its policy change, and the cheerleaders were back on the field during the national anthem. In a statement at the time, Olens said that he respected the First Amendment rights of the cheerleaders, although he disagreed with their manner of protest.

Later that month, the University System of Georgia’s review was released, pillorying Kennesaw State and Olens for not consulting the system on the changes, and questioning the explanation that the change was made coincidentally and not because of the cheerleaders’ protest.

“President Olens was aware of the proposed [pregame ceremony] change three days before it was implemented and did nothing to stop the change,” the report said. “President Olens also did not advise the University System Office of the proposed change, though he was instructed to do so earlier that week.”

The Journal-Constitution reported that last week that pressure was mounting on Olens to resign, and that he also felt his position as president wasn't a good fit.

Davante Lewis, the brother of one of the cheerleaders who filed the public records requests, said Thursday that Olens’s resignation provided an opportunity to correct the controversial process that led to his appointment in the first place.

“I think now it’s upon the University System of Georgia to do what they did not do a year ago: [create] an open, fair, honest, independent and national search for a president,” Lewis said. He added that he didn’t think the cheerleading scandal was enough to lead to Olens’s resignation, but it “brought together a major question of his presidency: Who is controlling Sam Olens?”

Indeed, Olens was a controversial pick before the scandal.

He was Georgia’s attorney general when he was appointed and had no higher education experience. A formal search committee for the presidential selection was never created, leading the Faculty Senate to criticize the process that led to his selection.

As attorney general, he defended the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, leading student groups to question his appropriateness as a university leader. Under his leadership, the attorney general’s office also joined a lawsuit seeking to block the U.S. Education Department from applying Title IX regulations and protections to transgender students.


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